Seahawks have one elusive stealth receiver no one is talking about

There's a reason this man is smiling.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

It's surprising how many top players at this position were taken on Day 3 of the NFL Draft. The Seattle Seahawks have landed another in this illustrious group.

No, I don't mean Jake Bobo. Everybody in Seattle has been saying "More Bobo" for a year, and with good reason. Not enough people are talking about the Seahawks fourth-round pick out of Michigan, tight end A.J. Barner. Everyone talks about how good a blocker he is, as they should. But he's a deceptively good receiver, too. Hawks opponents will find just how good in the coming seasons.

As Lee Vowell wrote in his profile of Barner, Seattle got a player who can immediately step into the roles Will Dissly and Colby Parkinson filled for the Hawks. He also projects as a player who could eventually be the lead tight end. I wholeheartedly agree with this, and expect it to come to fruition in his third season in Seattle. Even as a rookie, he'll be a valuable part of the offense.

Seattle Seahawks got a steal in TE A.J. Barner

This isn't just me fanboying a Michigan Man. I've gone on record more than once that Jim Harbaugh would not be my choice to replace Pete Carroll if the Hawks moved on. Now that Harbaugh is back in the NFL, I can't remember for the life of me why I said that. Just kidding, 12s, I do remember why, and the reasons still stand. He's a great choice for the Chargers, absolutely. And the Seahawks moved on from the oldest coach in the league to the youngest. Nothing wrong with Pete's age, but I don't think he would have been coaching another ten years. Mike Macdonald could be leading the Hawks for decades. Don't worry, I know someone will find this and rub it in my face if he fails.

No, I'm a fan of what A.J. Barner can do on the field, not who he did it for. Although that's a big part of my confidence in him moving forward in the league. Funny how all the people who knock him his receiving numbers at Michigan omit the context. Doubtless, they're the same people who knock J.J. McCarthy's passing numbers. So let me ask you - when the quarterback doesn't throw the ball, how is the tight end supposed to catch it?

Harbaugh's Wolverines ran the ball a lot. 550 runs in the 2023 edition of college football is, well, a lot. Michigan was in the top 10 in the NCAA. Their offense was basically the opposite of the Huskies, who were second in the NCAA in passing attempts. Michigan attempted 360 passes, more than 200 fewer than UDub. They completed 260a, and when they did connect, McCarthy spread the ball around. No receiver had more than 48 receptions. Three players broke the 40 mark, another had 30, and two players were tied with 22. Barner was one of those with 22 catches.

Here's the thing, 12s. Discounting Barner's ability because he played in a run-heavy system is a mistake. Let me throw some quotes from a few draftniks at you, and see what you think. "Plays in pro-style attack and approaches blocking like an offensive lineman. Comes off the ball with good pad level and strikes with leverage and hands inside the opponent's frame. Blocks with good technique and has footwork to get to reach blocks and combos. Patterns are inconsistent and he rarely tilts defenders at the top of his routes. Could generate better separation with improved route leverage. Route breaks can be too easy to decipher."

Those of you who knew that was from the NFL's draft profile of George Kittle, pat yourself on the back. We all know how nasty Kittle is as a receiver. Painfully so. And how many passes did Kittle catch at Iowa? 22, the magic number. In his four seasons in college, one of the most dangerous tight ends in the league caught an incredible 48 passes.

Let's flip the script a bit. Here are some of the projections for a college tight end who showed more promise as a receiver than blocker, but even then, not a great prospect. "a solid prospect with a limited upside due to him being neither particularly strong as a blocker nor fast as a receiver. He does however appear to have very good reliable hands, a good overall football IQ along with nice length, and the ability to fight for the ball in traffic. He looks like a player who will likely carve out a career for himself as a second-string TE who will add a significant contribution as a special teamer."

So you know I'm not picking on the NFL's Lance Zierlein, that writeup is from NFL Draft Buzz. Both sites projected him as a sixth-round pick. Maybe it was surprising when Dallas took him in the fourth round, but apparently, they knew what they were doing. Jake Ferguson caught 19 balls as a rookie, then made the Pro Bowl last year with 71 receptions and five touchdowns.

I'm not suggesting that Barner will make the Pro Bowl in his second season. But Brock Bowers, the unanimous choice as the best TE in the draft, averaged 12.8 yards per catch. Barner averaged 11.3. Per Pro Football Focus (subscription required, Bowers forced the most missed tackles of all tight ends since 2021, with 44. A.J. Barner was second with 36. Bear in mind that he forced 36 whiffs on just 64 catches. Bowers had 175 catches. So who was more elusive? You don't even have to be mathy to get that answer.

I'm not saying that Barner will be a better pro than Bowers. In one of my seemingly endless mock drafts, Bowers somehow fell to the Seahawks at 16. You're darn right I took him. The point is that A.J. Barner is already a far better receiver than most realize. NFL defenses will learn that very soon as well.

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